Second Life, SJ Watson

download (1)Help me out here. I loved Watson’s first book – and when I say ‘loved’, I mean really really really LOVED! I’ve actually read parts of it multiple times. I’ve used it in teaching writing techniques, I’ve referred countless people of all ages to it as a MUST read. So, you can only begin to imagine my elation when I heard that Watson had a new book coming out… and how I waited for this new book, knowing what I know about Watson’s skill at crafting a story and the way that he sucks a reader in to a plot, the complexity of his characters and the depth of the sway of his prose … with baited breath, I waited. And, as soon as the book was out, I pounced, grabbing this one to read on a long plane journey.

And I wasn’t disappointed, at least, not entirely. There’s no doubt that Watson has skill – in fact, he has a number of skills. There’s no doubt that he writes a mean psychological thriller. And I enjoyed this, I did. But – there’s always a but – it wasn’t nearly as brilliant as ‘Before I Go To Sleep‘ and I don’t think that’s particularly suprising. Those of you who read Watson’s debut novel will appreciate this immediately.

Like ‘Before I Go To Sleep’, ‘Second Life’ follows a female protagonist who finds out that her sister has been killed in Paris. The book unfolds as Julia, said protagonist, tries to understand how her sister died, the life she was leading and the person she had become. It was a solid plot and the characters were strong and nicely layered. Nonetheless, I found my concentration straying at various intervals throughout this book and I’m not entirely sure why… I’m not entirely sure that it was Watson’s fault. In many ways, The Guardian sums it up well: “Let’s face it, there aren’t many authors who could top Before I Go to Sleep.”

I’ll always be a fan of Watson’s. No matter what he produces, his first is too memorable to leave behind.

 

 

Sandra Brown, Rainwater

I’ve read many a Sandra Brown book in the past and I’ve always been impressed by the way in which she sculpts her thrillers. She has always proved to be a writer who can balance a sound plot with convincing characters and a subtle intensity that sustains the entire novel.

Rainwater is an entirely different kind of Brown and I have to confess that I was thrilled to find that beneath this commercial writer there is a solid and emotive core, a beautiful way with characterisation and emotion and a purity that I was really not expecting.

This novel overflows with empathy in its rarest of forms. Here we have raw characters who chafe against each other, set in the context of a challenging period of American history. The dust bowl is true to its image, it is rough and ragged and brings out both the best of people and the worst. This novel was a pleasant surprise.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

download (2)This was one of those books that you both love and hate.

Let’s start with what’s to love:

1. The sweeping arc of this work – and by sweeping I mean hundreds upon hundreds of pages (over 700) which echo of Dickens and epic sagas set in the back streets of quaint towns of yesteryear. I really loved Tartt’s vision in creating the layers of this narrative. I loved the way she introduced us to her protagonist, Theo, and then stretched him out, exploring the nuances of his perplexing existence all through the lens of this painting and its drama.

2. The characters – Tartt is a wizard at building characters and this book is full of them – Theo, his mother, Boris, Pippa and the magnificent Hobbie brings Dickens to life in this modern text.

3. The premise of the plot – an art gallery, an explosion, a survival, a missing painting. What’s not to love?

4. The wonderful drug induced mania that Theo and Boris wade through and the trauma that this brings with it – this was so vivid and tragic that it echo consistently through this work.

5. The landscape – Tartt swiftly unfolds New York with its bustling streets and its hidden nooks and crannies and then throws us into the desert of Las Vegas, leaving us on the veritable edge of the wilderness, a barren housing estate symbolic of the failure of American prosperity and vaguely reminiscent, in my mind, of T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes and the stretching ash in The Great Gatsby.

And what’s to hate? It’s simple. The editors let Tartt down in this book – or she let herself down by insisting on such rambling prose. This novel seemed to never end. I read it for hours and hours and days upon days which flowed into weeks. I don’t think it’s taken me so long to plough through a tome since I read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose at university. And it was infuriating because I loved the premise of the story and the characters but the book’s length plagued my reading experience and there was whole sections which I felt could have been left to my imagination.

So, I’m undecided about this book. So much to love but so indulgent in its length … Tartt has left me confused.

For a beautiful and intriguing review, don’t miss Vanity Fair’s take on this book!

 

 

Deserving Death, Katherine Howell

downloadWhat a find!!! Katherine Howell, I don’t normally enjoy Australian fiction and apart from Garry Disher, there’s no Aussie thriller writer that I can be bothered to read, but you have taken the cake!

While this book read like a classic murder mystery, the way that Howell crafted her characters and depicted the particularly Australian landscape of Sydney, makes this a unique book.

I was immediately captivated by the paramedic scenario – believable, filled with empathy and yet, at the same time, tortured with conflict and stress. I loved Howell’s sensitive introduction of each woman’s personal background – the lesbian who hasn’t come out to her family, the detective struggling to balance work and life and others dealing with loss and grief. It was a perfect tension. At times the plot waivered and I found myself having to reread sections in order to clarify things, but this didn’t deter me and I thoroughly enjoyed Howell’s prose.

I will definitely be seeking out more of Howell’s work!!

Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return

3486022When I wrote about The Pious Ones, I encoutered Shulem Deen. Joseph Berger had written about him in a NY Times article entitled ‘Outcast Mother’s Death…” and in another article in Tablet magazine which reveals a basic insight into Deen’s struggles to stay connected to his children after he left his Chassidic sect.

Deen was raised in the Skverer Chassidic sect; a closed and chaste community where questioning is not encouraged and thinking outside of the prescribed parameters are grounds for excommunication.

Having read about Deen’s journey in other books and having a connected to The Pious Ones, I was intrigued when I saw All Who Go Do Not Return on the bookshelf in a little shop in Newton Centre, Boston. I read Deen’s book as a captive audience on a plane, a long flight home. I was mesmerised from the first words:

“I wasn’t the first to be expelled from our village, though I’d never known any of the others. I’d only heard talk of them, hushed reminiscences of ancient episodes in the history of our half-century-old village, tales of various subversives who sought to destroy our fragile unity. The group of Belzers who tried to formed their own prayer group, the young man rumoured to have studied the books of the Breslovers, even the rebbe’s own brother-in-law, accused of fomenting sedition against the rebbe.

But I was the first to be expelled for heresy.”

Allow me to preface this review with this fact: I have a deep fascination with Chassidic communities. On many levels, I am in awe of their unique characteristics, of their connectedness, their sense of community and the importance they place on family. On the flip side, I am fascinated by how whole communities can function like isolated microcosms inside a whole other world without engaging with that outside world or engaging only in limited terms. Consequently, this book filled a valuable space in my fascination – what happens when people don’t fit into the mould of a specific community? What happens when they are so much outside of that mould that it becomes untenable for them to stay within the community – what happens to the community and what happens to them?

Shulem Deen’s book is beautifully written, so beautifully written that I found myself wondering how a man who only had a primary school education in English could write like this as an adult … That aside, Deen’s pages are filled with magnificent prose and deep yearning and furious turmoil, taut and torn and challenging and above all, very very sad.

I am glad I read Deen’s book. I think it’s an important contribution to this genre of writing. For me, a book always leaves a particular taste in my mouth, and wtih this book, the taste was overwhelming sadness. I admire Deen for the tough decisions that he has had to make in his life and I respect the path that he has chosen but I can’t escape the enormous loss that he will carry with him always – not knowing his children, his grandchildren and extended family. It reads like a type of death.

So, while I loved this book and definitely feel its infinite value, it left me very raw and not just fleetingly. Rather, what I was left with was a dull ache for Shulem Deen, a clearly lovely and intelligent man, and his children who have lost more than they will probably ever realise and then for all the other people who don’t have Deen’s courage and live locked up in lives that slowly suffocate them.

This would be a wonderful book for a bookclub – there is so much to discuss! If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Stranded, Alex Kava

StrandedOMG! hooked from the beginning, this book had my pulse racing at an unbelievable pace. I am gutted that it is finished, that I have turned the last page, that I am out of the forest, that the race is over. What a ride!

I loved the mystery in this thriller. There were so many layers to the action and the characters were so beautifully moulded that it was irresistible. I will definitely be looking for more books by Alex Kava! So excited to find a new writer!!

Debra Oswald, Useful

9780670077823My apologies to Debra Oswald, but I have to confess that I grabbed this book in excitement at the local library on Friday because I thought it was written by Debra Adelaide who wrote The Household Guide to Dying. And I love Debra Adelaide. I love her enough to have emailed her when I read The Household Guide to Dying to tell her how moved I was by her book. So, you can only imagine that when I saw Useful by Debra … I jumped, pounced, grabbed. It was the last, lonely copy on the new release shelves. A ‘RED HOT READS’.

Anyway, long story short, I didn’t reailse that Debra Oswald was not, in fact, Debra Adelaide, until I sat down and started reading. After a momentary pang of disappointment, I was thrust into this wonderful book and I soon forgot that initial pang as I fell in love with Debra Oswald and her overwhelming skill at crafting such an intriguing novel filled with these wonderous characters.

I finished the book in less than 24 hours. I couldn’t stop. I had to find out what was going to happen, hanging desperately on to the tiniest thread of possibility that Sully would indeed find his way down the correct path, hoping that maybe I would be spared the weight of an ending that left me doubting …

Now, I won’t spoil it for you by revealing anything more. What you need to know about this book before you commit to reading it is that you will be intrigued. Meet Sully, a man who has never done anything useful in his life. He is the epitome of a bludger, in the true Aussie sense and an alcoholic to boot. He has a well meaning heart but is often sabotaged by his inability to stay sober and the outrageous commitments he makes whilst drunk. But, he’s a likeable guy and that is central to the novel’s success. We first encounter Sully on the edge of a tall building as he prepares to end his useless life. He has it all planned out. There is nothing to live for. He has given away all his possessions, said his goodbyes and he is ready to take a final leap.

What Sully doesn’t consider is the fact that he might survive … that he is so useless that he cannot even execute a suicide! The novel unfolds from that point and Sully goes on to encounter a range of wonderfully vivid and really Australian characters. As we journey with him, we discover the intricacies of attachments that he has made, the beauty of his relationship with a dead man’s dog and the fragility of being honest about emotions.

There is no doubt in my mind. It’s not Debra Adelaide, but this book has it all and I loved it. I loved it so much that I’m looking forward to my next Debra Oswald (as well as my next Debra Adelaide – hint, hint, nudge, nudge!).

If you like a well crafted Aussie drama with balls then this just the book that you have been waiting for!

What the Ground Can’t Hold, Shady Cosgrove

9781742612737The thing that grabbed me about this book was the title: it bothered me. Still does. And I want to rewrite it – “What the Ground Cannot Hold”.

But despite the fact that the title nagged at the edges of my reading view, I persisted and I am delighted that I did.

There are several different elements which are sure to intrigue readers in this book. Firstly, the plot. An avalanche on a mountain in the remote Andes – what’s not to love for those of us who enjoy a thriller? But this is only the background. The real intrigue lies in the complexity of each of the characters who find themselves stranded together in an isolated cabin, cut off from the rest of the world, alone in the white world of the mountain.

I thought Cosgrove was quite clever at how she wove together the narratives of each of these characters. This afforded the novel both a level of interest and a sound structure. In addition, it created a space for the reader to meander through the story filling in the gaps created by a single perspective as other voices were introduced. But more than this, it is what Cosgrove omits that is most intriguing about this book. In so many ways she leaves readers in the dark, providing only the scantest details about contextual events and the personal lives of each of her characters. I found these omissions both fascinating and irritating. What will Emma do about the lies her parents told her? How will Pedro reconcile himself to his past? Will the German family forgive themselves and each other? The book resolves none of these questions. They merely hang in the air, left for readers to ponder. Similarly, the plot is left hanging – “Surely I could hold on.” It is a brave ending, a climactic and tension filled crescendo which is left in mid air. I admire Cosgrove for leaving us like this, in the space that opens up with the not-knowing. I didn’t like it, but it leaves me with great respect for her as an author.

This was certainly an interesting read and I will look out for more of Cosgrove’s books – perhaps there will be a sequel and there I will find the resolution that I so crave as a reader?

The Children Act, Ian McEwan

the-children-act-cover-imageIf there’s one thing that I can be certain of in this life, it is that if I am at a loss for something to read, Ian McEwan will certainly deliver greatness. The Children Act didn’t disappoint.

There was a special quality to this book that I think rested in the intimate yet detached narrative voice afforded by the perspective of Fiona Maye – a leading HIgh Court judge presiding over cases in the family court. Maye is a perfect protagonist; she loves her job, is committed to the morality and ethics of the outcomes she delivers, she is in awe of the law and yet she is distant from the people she rules against as her position necessitates. This affords her the ability, as a narrator, to present a simultaneously distant (her husband might say cold), yet intimate view of the cases that come across her desk. McEwan replicates this in his text: “London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather.” The truncated sentences, sparse but layered with implied detail, provide the perfect space for Maye as narrator. The Washington Post describes The Children Act as “finely choreographed”, too long to be a novella but with “that focused intensity and single arc”.

With elegance and skill, in two pages, McEwan paints Maye as first an accomplished, professional, emotionally removed judge whose life is littered with the rewards of that position, and then, almost in the same breath, he exposes her humanity – “He had made a shocking declaration and placed an impossible burden on her. For the first time in years, she had actually shouted, and some faint echo still resounded in her ears. ‘You idiot! You fucking idiot!’… ‘How dare you!'” – she is talking to her husband, Jack, who has just declared that he needs to have an affair because he feels unsatisfied in their marriage. The stark juxtaposition between the complex issues that Maye is considering in advance of her court appearance in the morning – “Tomorrow, coming before her again would be a despairing Englishwoman …mother of a five-year-old girl, convinced, despite assurances to the court to the contrary, that her daughter was about to be removed from the jurisdiction by the father, a Moroccan businessman and strict Muslim, to a new life in Rababt, where he intended to settle” – and her emotional response to her husband  which unfolds half in her subconscious and half out loud.

I loved the tenuous balance that McEwan weaves between Maye as judge and Maye as wife. For me, it was this that afforded the book its brilliance, its ebb and flow, indeed, its edge. It is this that enables McEwan to explore a complex legal issue without drowning in the details and jargon, allowing Maye’s voice to be believable and honest, for her to be trustworthy narrator.

Inspired by true events, The Children Act swept me along in a symphony of reading bliss. It is exactly the type of reading experience that I like to highly recommend!

The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego

9780987381149I applaud Julie Szego for grabbing this story and shaking it until its bones rattled. I applaud her for dealing with the harsh, grating issues that lie beneath the facade of the shocking plot surrounding the ‘tainted trial of Farah Jama’ – a black Ethiopian man convicted on the flimsiest of evidence for a crime that he did not commit against a white woman … all in a country as democratic and beautiful as Australia.

Szego explores the crime, the crime scene and the various characters involved, from a range of different and compelling angles. She clearly and competently conveys the complexity of this case – the victim, the accused and his traditional, Ethiopian family, and the honour and pride of the Ethiopian community. In layers, Szego unwraps all of these elements, drawing readers into the heart of questions about morality, truth, justice and race relations in Australia.

I loved how this story unfolded. It is part investigative journalism and part social commentary with a touch of thrilling mystery. The way that Szego crosses the boundaries of these genres makes this a fascinating book to read. This book teaches us about humanity, about prejudice, about assumptions and presumptions and about the fallibity of our legal system. Most importantly, it forces us to appreciate the value of asking questions and investigating until we are certain that we have come to understand the truth.